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Civil Right

Jerusalem Dispatch

On the surface, the similarities between the late extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane, and Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, Israel's tourism minister and head of the far-right Moledet (Homeland) party, are obvious. Both men advocated the abhorrent "transfer" of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries; both headed radical, peripheral political movements. Both were murdered by Arab terrorists, Kahane eleven years ago in November, and Ze'evi this week.

But Israeli reactions to the two murders were drastically different. Kahane was mourned principally by his own followers, some of whom turned his funeral into an anti-Arab pogrom—a fitting send-off for a man whose Kach party advocated laws that would imprison Jews and Arabs who slept with each other, an unconscious mimicry of Nazism's Nuremberg laws. Ze'evi, though, was mourned by even his most bitter political enemies. "I'm devastated," left-wing Meretz leader Yossi Sarid told the Knesset, and he looked it. Kahane's death heightened our pathological divisions; Ze'evi's death exposed our commonality.

Partly the difference was cultural. Kahane was a religious fanatic from Brooklyn who never became, in spirit, an Israeli; he hated his left-wing opponents and advocated their murder. Gandhi—as everyone called him, a reference to the Arab dress he wore during the fight for independence against the British—was a war hero and a veteran of the pre-state military Palmach. Members of that elite fraternity, which included Yitzhak Rabin, never stopped loving each other no matter what their politics, as Rabin's daughter, Daliah Rabin Pelissof, put it. Kahane raged and incited; Ze'evi's tone was alternately didactic and weary, as he tried to explain truths that were obvious to him but eluded the rest of us.

Another difference was ideological. Ze'evi certainly had a dark side. He once denounced former U.S. Ambassador and Oslo stalwart Martin Indyk as a "Jewboy"—a self-hating Jew—and accused former President George Bush of anti-Semitism. Still, he knew how to remain politically respectable, if just barely. Unlike Kahane's Kach, Ze'evi's Moledet wasn't banned by the Knesset. It stayed legal by advocating not expulsion, but rather "voluntary transfer"—by which he meant active government encouragement of Palestinian emigration. (Ze'evi was careful not to include Arab citizens of Israel in these travel plans.) Kahane's ultimate motive for transfer was to purify the Holy Land of its non-Jewish presence. Ze'evi, though, was more fatalist than fanatic: If two rival peoples couldn't coexist in the same land and if, as he passionately believed, a return to the 1967 borders would mean the end of Israel, the only solution was for the Palestinians to leave. "They have twenty-two states, and we have only one homeland," went the Moledet slogan. According to Ze'evi's left-wing friends, he didn't hate Arabs: He had better relations with some Arab Knesset members, noted Meretz parliamentarian Ran Cohen, than did many peaceniks.

Ze'evi embodied the politics of emergency. For him, Israel's reality was still 1948—a country vulnerable and besieged. And so he looked to that time for solutions. If David ben-Gurion could endorse transfer in 1948, he argued, why not us? "He fought in the War of Independence and continued to fight for independence," eulogized Moledet Knesset member Benny Elon, "because he knew we could lose it. Others may have given up their vigilance, but not Gandhi." His trademark, which hung over his shirt, was a metal dog tag imprinted with the names of four Israeli MIAs—a symbol of his perception of himself as permanently mobilized.

Through the 1990s, as Israel shed its identity as a besieged nation, Ze'evi found himself increasingly alone. His party never won more than a handful of Knesset seats; the mainstream rightly repudiated his politics as delusional and repugnant. Yet in the last year, Ze'evi's sensibility, if not his policies, has come once again to define the Israeli psyche. When Israelis try to explain the experience of this year of violence, they say, "It feels like 1948." Ze'evi lived long enough to stop being an anachronism.

Ze'evi's obsessive theme was resisting American pressure for territorial concessions, and he ended his career on that note. His final public act was to resign, two days before his murder, from the unity government—denouncing Sharon for acceding to Washington's pressure to withdraw troops from a neighborhood in Hebron where Palestinian snipers had recently fired into a crowd of Jewish pilgrims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. (His resignation wasn't to take effect until the afternoon of his murder, so he died, that morning, a cabinet minister.)

But in death Ze'evi may achieve what he failed to accomplish in life: distancing Sharon from Shimon Peres and nudging the prime minister to the right. The Israeli policy of targeting terrorists will almost certainly intensify. That policy has widespread support: Most Israelis understand the difference between killing terrorists who are planning their next atrocity and murdering a cabinet minister in a democratically elected government. And Sharon is now far less likely to go along with the charade of Yasir Arafat as anti-terrorist.

The Bush administration—which expects Israel to continue negotiations with Arafat as if nothing had changed—is badly underestimating this country's trauma. However different the circumstances, the first murder of an Israeli cabinet minister by a Palestinian can't help but recall the Rabin assassination, a reminder for Israelis of the fragility of democracy in the Middle East. Arafat's predicable arrest of terrorists following Ze'evi's murder—to be followed inevitably by their quiet release—won't be passed over here in silence. And the profound grief and rage among Israelis across the ideological spectrum could make it easier for Sharon to resist American pressure and fulfill at least that element of Gandhi's grim vision. From abroad Ze'evi may appear merely peripheral and unpleasant, but his place in the Israeli psyche runs deep: Custodian of the spirit of 1948, he has become a symbol of that spirit's vulnerability, and of its surprising rebirth.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.